Was slavery legally exclusive to race? That is, could blacks and only blacks in the United States be considered slaves under the law?

As an example, if an owner were to import into the United States a slave of another race, would their ownership status over said slave have been recognized?

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    If there were such a legal restriction, it would have been a state law, not a "United States" legal concept.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 12:13

4 Answers 4


Mostly, but not entirely.

Several states including Virginia explicitly recognized slaves that were purely descended from Indians.

It is important to realize that the law often had no bearing on whether a person could be enslaved and there was a huge mismatch between the laws and actual practice. For example, most southern states had laws very early making it illegal to import slaves of any kind and ruling that any slave imported into their state became instantly free. Virginia passed their law of this type in 1792. Nevertheless, this law was never obeyed. Hundreds of thousands of slaves were imported and exported from Virginia after 1792 and none of them that I know of were freed under this law. Another such law, more restrictive, was the Act of 1819 in Virginia, which has the following language:

No persons shall henceforth be slaves within this commonwealth, except such were so on the seventeenth day of October, in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty-five, and the descendants of the females of them and such persons and their descendants, being slaves, as since have been, or hereafter may be brought into this state, or held there in pursuant to law.

Where it was only legal to bring in slaves from other states and the District of Columbia. Thus, for example, it would be illegal to bring an actual African as a slave into Virginia after this law was passed.

As a general rule, after the War of the Revolution the courts only recognized "negroes," meaning Africans, as inherently slaves. Indians could only be slaves if they were the children of slaves and already owned. You could not newly enslave an Indian. If a person imported and enslaved a non-African, that would be illegal, because they were out of limits. The specific language is as follows for Virginia:

  1. § 3. It shall not be lawful for any person whatsoever, to bring into this state, or to hold therein, any slave or slaves born or resident out of the limits aforesaid, or any slave or slaves that shall have been convicted of any offence, and therefor transported by the laws of this state, or of any state, territory, or district aforesaid; and, if any person shall bring into this state, contrary to the provisions of this act, any such slave or slaves, or shall sell, purchase or hold, in this state, any such slave or slaves, knowing such slave or slaves to have been brought into this state contrary to the provisions of this act, every such offender shall forfeit and pay to the commonwealth, for the use of the Literary fund, for each slave so brought in, sold, purchased or held, a fine of one thousand dollars: Provided however, That the penalty aforesaid shall not be incurred by any person bringing into this state any slave or slaves, for the purpose only of passing through, or for a short time abiding therein, if such slave or slaves be not kept within this state for one whole year, or sold or offered for sale therein.

Notice that there is an exemption for a person "passing through". So, for example, if a foreign diplomat had, say, a Burmese slave and was just traveling through the state, then that would be allowed.

Note that the same laws forbade free negroes or mulattoes from settling in Virginia, as defined by being of one-fourth blood of a negro. Such people could be arrested at will and expelled from the state.

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    The quotes you're referencing still don't make a distinction of race. By their language, they ban the importing of any slaves of any kind. As for slavery within the state, only descendants of slaves could be claimed as slaves.
    – user14982
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 20:42
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    @YasmaniLlanes The first-quoted law was the binding law in 1820. Legally speaking, anyone of any race who met that definition could legally be considered a slave in Virginia. Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 20:49

members of various Indian tribes enslaved various members of other tribes and whites. This went on even after various Indian tribes more or less acknowledged the over lordship of the Federal government. Indian warriors who wanted to enslave someone never stopped to ask if anybody in the group knew whether that was legal according the laws of the "grandfather" in Washington.

Of course it was also common to torture captives to death or adopt them as members of the family and tribe or hold them for ransom.

There was also a lot of enslaving of Indians on the frontier, regardless of whether that may have been legal according to state or territorial or Federal laws.

The Navajos and the New Mexicans had been raiding each other for livestock and slaves for centuries. The Navajos were finally defeated in 1864 and forced to make the Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo reservation and were not permitted to return to their homeland for several years. So there was a lot of chances for white slaves of the Navajos to get their freedom.

It is not so certain how many Navajo slaves of the New Mexicans were set free, or when. One has a certain cynicism about the eagerness of New Mexicans to release their slaves even after the 13th amendment, ratified on December 6, 1865 decreed that: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." That is pretty clear and absolute, but one suspects that New Mexicans would consider having Navajo slaves a traditional part of their culture and unaffected by law.

And I doubt if Californians all recognized that the practice of forcing kidnapped Indians to work for them as payment for being civilized was unconstitutional after the 13th amendment.

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    Indentured servants were white, coolies were Chinese, and chain gangs could be any color. Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 19:59
  • I would not consider Native American's of one tribe being held captive (or slave) by another NA Tribe as fitting as an answer to the question, since the Native American's didn't live by the rules of the United States at the time.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 15:26
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    @CGCampbell they didn't live by US law because under US law they were excluded from doing so. Thus implicitly them having slaves of whatever colour or race was legal under US law.
    – jwenting
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 7:26
  • @jwenting yes, and? My point is the question (title) asks "..in the United States" Native Americans either lived where the US wasn't yet, or after, on reservations, under their own law. So, whether they had slaves (or not) wasn't "...in the US". I suppose one could get pedantic and say the territories were "technically the US" until the reservations were created and codified in law, but...
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 10:35

In the book Slavery by Another Name which contends that the system whereby prisoners were leased to farmers and large companies to do work basically was as bad as slavery or even worse we see the possibility of Whites who were sentenced and became part of this system could be considered slaves. Sort of like Cool Hand Luke showed us about chain gangs.

And in fact, the movie I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was based on a true story in which a White was sentenced to serving time on a road gang which may not have started out as him being in chains but ended up that way. So in some sense Whites could end up for all intents and purposes as slaves although Blacks were disproportionately members of these gangs.

It could also be argued that in present times, many prisoners are more or less slaves and some of them are White.


In the early days, whites were imported into the colonies as "indentured servants." These were people who had sold themselves to masters, not for life, but for a period of time, usually for seven years, in exchange for passage to the colonies, bail out of jail, or similar considerations. Although such people were "unfree," the difference between this kind of servitude and black slavery was that it was for fixed period of time, not for life.

As Mark Wallace pointed out in a comment on another post, such arrangements were regulated by state, not federal law (prior to the 13th Amendment). It was not until the early 19th century that a "rollback" of such arrangements began.

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